A few old buddies and one of the world’s fastest sedans head for the backcountry.
California State Route 62 turns into a mountain-lined ribbon of cracked asphalt as I drive northeast away from Palm Springs. It’s well after dark, and I’m bleary-eyed from the traffic-choked slog out of Los Angeles. My need for sleep and the unlit, abandoned road mean I can’t see the walls of granite and basalt that flank me, but I can hear them. Gnarly exhaust and supercharger whine fly out from this accelerating Dodge sedan, and bounce back in a trailing echo so stirring I’m compelled to add another degree of throttle.
Forget the badge. Forget the brutal looks. Forget the eye-watering price for what is, at base, a family sedan. Forget where you are, and who you are, and that there may be a trooper around that next bend: when the Charger Hellcat roars its WOT song, it’s best to suspend your disbelief and let it wash over you. Good God it’s fast.
Wider, For Your Pleasure
Sorry, “Charger Hellcat” is, apparently, too nonspecific. This four-door missile is technically a 2020 Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Widebody. My shorthand version of the proper name is all it takes to convey the important parts to the Mopar-informed – those being four doors and 707 horsepower from 6.2 massively supercharged liters. But the Widebody bit is worth a refresher. In the storied tradition of bolting on fender flares to cover wider rubber, the hooligans at SRT have added 3.5 inches of width to shade fatter, 305-section tires. The bigger contact patch means better acceleration, handling, and stopping, but the visual effect of the Widebody treatment is just as impactful: The car looks mean. (It’s also the only way Dodge will sell you a Hellcat-equipped Charger in the 2020 model year, the skinny version being discontinued.)
I’m out here for a birthday party; joining some old high school friends for a long weekend of hiking, climbing, and photography in Joshua Tree National Park. The silver-striped, maroon (actually “Octane Red”) Charger does not feel quite at home amongst the glut of modified campers and endless parade of lifted Tacomas and Wranglers that dot JT, but it’s actually well-suited for chauffeur duty.
I put four (excited) adults, including three dudes over six-feet tall, in the sedan, without too much in the way of complaint. I wouldn’t recommend traveling this way for hours on end, but our one-hour drive to Palm Springs from the park was a non-issue. And though we’re not packing luggage for the day trip, the Charger’s goliath 16.5-cubic-foot truck would likely swallow all of the backpacks, carry-on bags, and hiking gear that we collectively hauled out to Joshua Tree. So loaded, the car is a shockingly quiet and comfortable highway stormer – with the radio up and conversation flowing the 56-mile drive goes by in an eye blink.
In The Belly Of The Beast
From the driver’s seat, I find a mixed bag of excellent features and some disappointing finishing. The Uconnect system continues to be excellent to use and packed with neat software, especially with the SRT Performance Pages app. Do I need to see how quick my last launch control-aided start was, or how many Gs I’m pulling in a given corner? No. Does having that information at my fingers feel like a cool thing to show off to friends (and perhaps help justify the $83,000 price tag one stop light at a time)? Oh hell yeah.
On the other hand, the fat-bolstered, overstuffed buckets are trimmed in black leather so thin it moves around and deforms like saran wrap every time I sit on it. Not great. And for all that evident support on my bottom and sides, the bolsters are actually so wide that I’d need to gain weight for them to properly hug me — not usually an issue since I go about 6’5” and 240 pounds.
The seats do sell the message of the insane engine under the hood pretty well. It can be easy to get a little jaded or power-drunk when you review cars on a regular basis; certainly the Hellcat story is one that’s gotten plenty of coverage since it debuted for the 2015 model year. But the truth is that most average-car driving folks don’t have any clue what this kind of power feels like. When I first load up the crew and find an open stretch of road, one hard launch from a stop is all it takes to blow their minds. At least the chairs are heated and vented, so my ass stays cool whilst powersliding around the bottom cushion. Everyone assures me I’m being picky; the tire-smoking histrionics are a crowd pleaser.
Stil, a little support would come in handy. Wider tires or not, it’s perfectly possible to light up the rears and get this big-body sedan sideways, at the flex of an ankle. That Dodge has made the car so controllable – downright comfortable, in fact – in most driving conditions, is a testament to the continued development of this chassis. Having driven the early Hellcats, Chargers and Challengers, I actually think the biggest minute-to-minute advantage of the widebody is this, more tractable nature. On skinny rubber, one kind of straddled a knife’s edge between accelerating up to highway speeds and inadvertently getting crossed up and sideways on the on-ramp.
The Charger Hellcat is very obviously best at chewing up miles in a straight line, and I don’t have many chances out in JT to go corner hunting. But when I do find sections of curvy road, free of slow moving traffic, I’m absolutely staggered by how sticky and lithe this near 4,600-pound car can be. SRT has done magic with this new tuning of the three-mode Bilstien dampers, stiffer springs, and less roll overall. I’m sure the sedan is a handful at racetrack speeds, but in the world of near-legal-speed driving it feels remarkably flat from corner to corner.
A Class Of One(ish)
There’s no question the Charger SRT Hellcat is expensive: my as-tested price of $82,900 could buy a number of fast machines. The thing is, there’s nothing much, for that price or otherwise that competes here. If I’m looking for roomy four-door, four-seat vehicles with eye-watering 0-60 times and unmissable styling, the only true competitor I see is an FCA cousin: the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. The Jeep might be worth its $5,000 premium versus the Dodge, unless you’re totally smitten with the pumped up, don’t-call-me-ugly styling of the Charger WB,
Brutalist design notwithstanding, It’s been a beautiful trip. From that solo, fast shot out of LA to a remarkable spot on the Earth, hanging out with people I don’t see enough of, and seasoned with a really unforgettable car to get us around. We woke up early to scramble over rocks in the liquid morning light. We grilled steak and vegetables and ate outside as the sun went down and the desert got dark and cool. Drank good wine out of juice glasses and soaked in the hot tub, and listened to owls and coyotes cry. We remembered a little bit of what it was like when we were younger, even as we celebrated another milestone in growing old. Testing a great car, like everything else, is better in the company of old friends.